The difference between mentoring and coaching is slippery.

The coach is a core role in the discussion of adopting agile.  Coaching is important because it can lead it to smoothly functioning organizations, higher productivity, and profits. The perceived value of coaching has caused some practitioners and team members to confuse the concepts of coaching, mentoring and, in some cases, counseling.  Confusion leads to misapplication of techniques, mismatched expectations, and lower value.  Some of the more salient attributes of each role include:

Coaching

  1.     Targets specific behaviors.  For example, a speaking coach works with the person they are coaching on behaviors that revolve around speaking.
  2.     Set duration. Coaches are typically deployed for a specific period of time. For example, the speaking coach noted above might be retained for a specific speech or retained for a period of time. Using a sports example, pitchers typically have a pitching coach that works with the pitching staff during baseball season.  (Note: I am a baseball fan – the Cleveland Indians pitchers and catchers report to spring training on February 14; I bet the coaches have been hired and are already planning.)
  3.     Might not have specific experience in the area they are coaching.  For example, many agile coaches might not have specific coding or testing experience.  Coaches have experience in asking the right questions.
  4.     Agendas are defined to address specific job-related goals. Performance of a speaking coach will be evaluated based on the “coachees” performance when speaking, not based on other goals.
  5.     Involve other stakeholders.  Coaches interact with and often involve stakeholders to help the person being coached to improve the behavior they were coached on.

Mentoring:

  1.     Relationship driven. Mentoring is built on the relationship between the mentor and mentee.  Mentors tend to have long, on-going interactions with the person they are helping.
  2.     Broad-based rather than focused.  Mentoring focuses on the person rather than on a specific behavior.
  3.     The mentor has been there and done that. Mentors will have more experience than the person they are mentoring.  My wife’s association assigned her a business coach that had been a successful business owner that was able to provide guidance and direction based on that experience.
  4.     Career and personal development oriented. A mentor’s role is to develop the person, not to address a specific issue. Even though a mentor might provide specific guidance, they need to think about guiding and molding the whole person.  Early in my career, a very young CIO of a bank that I worked for had a mentor from one of the big accounting/consulting companies.  The mentor helped the CIO learn how to shift from being a technician to an executive leader over several years.
  5.     Mentors remove barriers. Mentors get things out of the way so that the person grow.  A coach will help mentees to remove barriers themselves.
  6.     Not based on explicit power.  Mentors derive their power based on their experience and the mentee’s interest.  They can not force the person they are mentoring to take their advice.  Coaches tend to have more positional power. In some cases, the coach can impact whether a person plays or is promoted.   

Counseling

  1.     Focuses on the underlying issue.  Counselors are focused on the underlying issues that drive behaviors.
  2.     Rarely involve other stakeholders.  Counseling focuses on what is driving behaviors.  In a business scenario, it is rare for individuals to share at that level with others in the organization or team.

In a recent interview with the agile coach, Sam Liang (to be published in February), the distinction between mentoring and coaching was illustrated in stark contrast.  Coaches ask questions while mentors provide more specific guidance. When asked how he saw the difference, coach and mentor David Herron said, “I see them as similar, using some of the same skills and practices. However, mentoring is more personal and longer term, a relationship. Coaching may be shorter term, with targeted goals and objectives.”  Coaching, mentoring, and counseling can deliver huge benefits but only if the right technique is used in the right circumstances.

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